Rachel's Precaution Reporter #43
Wednesday, June 21, 2006

From: Capital Press Agriculture Weekly (Salem, Oregon) ...[This story printer-friendly]
June 16, 2006


[Rachel's introduction: Santa Cruz county (California) supervisors on June 20 unanimously adopted on "first reading" a "precautionary moratorium" on the use of genetically-engineered crops anywhere in the county. You can listen to the June 20 supervisors' meeting here and read a hefty set of background documents here. The "precautionary moratorium" ordinance is scheduled for a final vote by county supervisors in August. Some other Calfornia counties favor genetically-modified crops.]

By Ali Bay

Santa Cruz is set to become the fourth California county to ban the planting and production of genetically modified crops.

Last week the county Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to develop an ordinance placing a "precautionary" moratorium on genetically modified organisms until there is better regulatory oversight, health testing, labeling requirements and safeguards in place to prevent GMOs from contaminating other crops.

Although no genetically engineered crops are currently grown in the county, the ordinance, which will be considered on June 20, concludes a 10-month effort by the county to study the technology.

A genetic engineering subcommittee, comprised of supervisor appointees, prepared an extensive report outlining the group's "critical issues of concern" for genetically engineered foods. The report cites inadequate regulations of genetically engineered crops, lack of studies on the health effects of GE foods, absence of labeling requirements and adequate safeguards to prevent contamination of other food crops.

"For organic farmers I see (the moratorium) as a victory because they will not need to be worried about contamination of their crops through drift or the mixing up of seeds," said Peggy Miars, executive director of the Santa Cruz-based California Certified Organic Farmers. "Non- organic farmers who do not want GE cross pollination are in the boat."

Miars said she was amazed at the reaction supervisors gave after reading the subcommittee's report. They called the conclusions in the 58-page report "frightening" and "shocking."

Although the ordinance has yet to draw any criticism at the Board of Supervisors meetings, some local farmers and several minority subcommittee members who helped prepare the county report don't believe a moratorium is necessary.

"I don't feel it's necessary to call a moratorium on something that is not happening in the county at this time," said Steve Bontadelli, a Santa Cruz brussel sprouts grower and subcommittee member. "I kind of felt that it was a premature reaction to something we may or may not even be facing."

Still Bontadelli and others who wrote a minority report do agree with the subcommittee's basic findings that the technology should be labeled and other safeguards should be in place to help prevent contamination.

"There need to be methods, procedures and protocols in place to prevent that from happening," Bontadelli said.

Three other California counties, Mendocino, Trinity and Marin, have also passed anti-GMO ordinances, either by a local government initiative or public vote.

But according to ucbiotech.org, a statewide biotechnology workgroup associated with the University of California's Division of Agricultural and Natural Resources, more than a dozen counties across the state have either rejected similar ordinances or passed pro-GMO measures.

Voters in Humboldt, Sonoma, Butte and San Luis Obispo counties rejected ballot measures that would have banned the technology, while more than 10 counties, many in the Central Valley, have passed measures that support genetic engineering.

State lawmakers have also jumped into the mix, last year attempting to pass legislation that would give the state stronger authority to regulate seeds, effectively voiding the county bans of genetically engineered seed.

Senate Bill 1056, written by state Sen. Dean Florez, D-Shafter, didn't make its way out of the Legislature last year, but is expected to be heard again this month by the Assembly Agriculture Committee.

Organizations that have fought the county bans believe farmers and consumers should have the right to reap the possible benefits of genetically modified crops.

"More than 70 percent of the processed foods at grocery stores today have benefited from a science that improves food quality and offers the promise of medical solutions to life threatening diseases," said Marko Mlikotin, spokesman for the California Healthy Foods Coalition. "This is why voters in many counties oppose biotech crops bans. Family farmers should not be denied access to a science that improves the quality of life for their consumers."

In Santa Cruz, a moratorium would give consumers a choice to decide what they want to eat, Miars said, adding that the ban would be eliminated once labeling and other protections are in place.

"All the consumers I've heard from are supportive, are behind this," she said. "People want to have a choice and that's fine. But if you're going to be selling GE crop, I would say label it so people know and they have a choice."

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Ali Bay is based in Sacramento. Her e-mail address is abay@capitalpress.com.

Copyright 2006 Capital Press


From: Ode Magazine .......................................[This story printer-friendly]
June 16, 2006


[Rachel's introduction: In England, environmental advisor Zac Goldsmith plans to press four themes in drafting the new conservative platform on green issues: energy efficiency; local food; less dependence on foreign oil; and the precautionary principle. He believes these are pragmatic goals, which fit right in with Conservative Party values.]

By Jay Walljasper and Ode Magazine

Modern politics is notorious for the way it creates strange new meanings for familiar words. "National security," for instance, now means attacking distant countries. "Choice," in American electoral debates, is a secret code for abortion, and "family" signifies fierce opposition to gay rights. "Us," in the minds of some European political candidates, refers exclusively to white people.

But the word that has undergone the most dramatic transformation at the hands of politicians is "conservative." It once clearly described a political philosophy devoted to preserving tradition. But powerful leaders around the world now use the term to justify a complete reordering of society according to the wishes of global corporations and radical free-market economists. The merit of these policies is open to discussion, but it seems obvious that this kind of political agenda is anything but conservative.

"It's no accident that 'conservative' and 'conservation' are almost the same word," notes American environmentalist philosopher Bill McKibben. "But what we call conservative today has been captured by something else -- the idea that we need economic growth at all costs. That can be ruinous to our environment and our communities." That's the great irony of politics today: The very idea of conservation -- conserving the environment, natural resources, energy, a sense of community or anything else -- is considered unnecessary, or even a dangerous obstacle to economic progress, by most so-called

Conservatives. U.S. Vice-President Dick Cheney summed up the prevailing right-wing view when he said, "Conservation may be a sign of personal virtue, but it is not a sufficient basis... for a sound, comprehensive energy policy."

This is what makes the recent turn of events in British politics so fascinating. The Conservative Party, which earned the undying wrath of environmentalists when Margaret Thatcher was prime minister, is now trumpeting green issues in an effort to unseat the ruling Labour Party. The new Conservative leader, David Cameron, who assumed power last fall, quotes Gandhi in urging people "to become the change we want to see in the world." He can be seen riding his bike all over London and plans to add solar panels and a wind turbine to his home in the fashionable Notting Hill neighbourhood. He's gone so far as to question the dominance of corporate power in the UK, declaring in a recent newspaper ad, "We should not just stand up for big business but to big business."

While this might sound like some sort of political gimmick, there are signs that Cameron is sincere about pioneering a new brand of "green" conservativism -- which could become as globally influential as Thatcher's free-market policies were in the 1980s. If the environment ceases to become a divisive issue among parties of the left, right and centre around the world, we will see a new flowering of green initiatives.

In a bold stroke, Cameron enlisted Bob Geldof, rock star and prominent anti-poverty advocate, as an advisor on global affairs, and Zac Goldsmith, editor of the The Ecologist magazine, as an environmental advisor.

The Ecologist has been uncompromising in its opposition to corporate globalization, agribusiness, free trade, genetically modified food and big supermarkets -- hardly the resume of an up-and-coming player in the Conservative Party. Yet Goldsmith is helping direct a team of party leaders over the next 18 months in creating a new green vision for Conservatives. He's even been approved by party officials to run for parliament. "If you would have predicted this four or five years ago," Goldsmith admits. "I would have been really surprised."

"There are big changes going on about the environment in this country right now," he explains. "Politics is just now catching up. Fifteen years ago Prince Charles was laughed at when he talked about organic food. Now you have half the people in this country buying organic food for their children. Businesses like [the huge retailer] Marks & Spencer are really raising the bar on the issues we're covering in The Ecologist. Very detailed market research is telling them this is what customers want."

Goldsmith plans to press four themes in drafting the new conservative platform on green issues: energy efficiency; local food; less dependence on foreign oil; and the precautionary principle, which states that a new technology or product cannot be introduced until it's been proven safe. He believes these are pragmatic goals, which fit right in with Conservative Party values. "They don't require us to live like monks. They don't require huge increases in taxes." Peter Ainsworth, the Conservative's new shadow environment minister, vows to address the issue of climate change with policies that conserve energy and promote alternative power sources like solar, wind and wave power. (He hedges on nuclear.) "I do not believe that saving the planet is incompatible with economic progress," he states. "There are huge commercial opportunities for British companies in these new green industries. We are in danger of missing out on the opportunities."

John Vidal, who has monitored green politics for many years as environmental editor of Britain's centre-left Guardian newspaper, notes that, "When you're not in power, it's easy to be green. But the Conservatives do have a very, very good environmental team. What happens when they come up against the party's business interests? We'll have to wait and see."

Vidal is quick to add that they've already accomplished a lot. "It's wonderful the effect they're having on the Labour government. They're forcing the government to put more into renewable energy and many other things."

Like Goldsmith, he sees a new wave of green consciousness sweeping Britain, and feels "that business has grabbed this wave more than government. Businesses are really coming up with new initiatives. It's quite amazing." That helps explain the unusual phenomenon of a conservative party trying to outflank left and centre parties on environmental issues.

Germany is another place where conservative leaders are rethinking their views on ecological issues. Newly elected chancellor Angela Merkel from the conservative Christian Democrat party has not overturned some of the significant environmental policies enacted by the previous Social Democrat/Green Party coalition although she campaigned against the measures. "The Christian Democrats had attacked head-on government supports for renewable energy and attacked head-on the eco-tax [which imposed a levy on some sources of pollution]," notes Wolfgang Sachs, a leading German environmental thinker and researcher. "But now there's a consensus that you need to support the environment and renewable energy. The Christian Democrats understand that."

Sachs points out that as a conservative party, Christian Democrats historically were dedicated to preserving family, community and the natural landscape in the face of technological and economic change. (Indeed, Bavaria, the heartland of German conservatism, claims to have established the world's first government ministry of environmental protection.) But today, Sachs believes, "the Green Party is the contemporary expression of that kind of conservative politics." He notes that recent elections in the German state of Baden- Wurttemberg nearly produced an unprecedented governing alliance between Christian Democrats and Greens. But efforts to forge a coalition of old- and new-style "conservatives" failed in the end, because of pressure from loyal activists in both camps who distrusted the other party. "It's a bit of a pity," Sachs remarks. "I think it could have been a trial run for society."

This green wave among conservative politicians has yet to cross the Atlantic. Canada's newly elected Conservative Party prime minister Stephen Harper campaigned against the country's continued participation in the Kyoto agreement on global climate change, and U.S. president George W. Bush has opposed nearly every environmental initiative that has come his way. But U.S. Senator John McCain -- who many see as the Republican frontrunner for the 2008 election -- is making global warming into a campaign issue although he hasn't embraced most other green issues. Many evangelical Christians -- probably the most loyal Republican voters in recent elections -- are also questioning the party's inaction on climate change. Eighty-six leading evangelical leaders, including presidents of 39 Christian colleges and best- selling author Rick Warren (The Purpose-Driven Life) signed a statement endorsing government action to establish limits on greenhouse-gas emissions.

There are further stirrings that some rank-and-file conservative voters may be thinking twice about the Republicans' stubborn indifference to environmental issues. Rod Dreher, a former editor at the right-wing magazine National Review and now an editorial writer at the Dallas Morning News, says, "Environmental concerns are a family value here in north Texas. The Republican leadership is all on board with the agenda of cleaning up the air. They can see how much pollution is costing us. One of them told me about how he went to his granddaughter's soccer game, and half the kids had to run to the sidelines to use their asthma inhalers."

Dreher chronicles the unlikely rise of a grassroots green conservative movement in his book Crunchy Cons (Crown Forum, 2006). "Crunchy cons," according to Dreher, are self-avowed conservatives who have some concerns in common with lefties, such as a suspicion of consumerism, large corporations and TV, as well as an affinity for organic food, animal rights, nature, historic preservation, small-is-beautiful thinking and a clean environment. These people tend to be deeply religious -- opposed to abortion, stem-cell research and gay marriage -- and firm in their belief that neither Republicans nor Democrats speak for them.

"It's not easy being a green conservative," he writes, "but if we conservatives want to be true to our principles, we have to move in that direction."

In their own way, the emergence of evangelical environmentalists and crunchy cons in America could be as significant as the greening of conservative parties in Europe. Political changes in the U.S. tend to arise first in social movements (think of the civil rights, environmental or anti-abortion movements) and only later get picked up by political parties. The right wingers in Birkenstocks and soccer granddads that Dreher writes about could lead to the greening of the Republican Party, a large-scale defection to the Democrats or perhaps a whole new political configuration. In any case, a growing force of activists spanning the political spectrum (and the world) who are working to clean up the environment means new hope for Mother Earth.

Copyright 2005 Planetsave Network


From: USA Today ..........................................[This story printer-friendly]
June 8, 2006


[Rachel's introduction: In some sense, the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) has taken a precautionary stance toward wind turbines that may interfere with aviation radar. Precaution helps you protect the things you care about, and if protecting aviation radar is your goal, precaution can help you achieve it. Of course fully precautionary action would start with a public process for deciding goals and examining all reasonable alternatives for achieving them, so the DoD stance on wind turbines is not precautionary in the classic meaning of the term.]

By Alan Levin, USA TODAY

Worries that giant electricity-producing windmills may interfere with aviation radar have thrown several major wind-power projects into disarray and threaten to derail a rapidly growing source of domestic energy, industry advocates say.

In recent months, the Defense Department and the Federal Aviation Administration have blocked or slowed several projects in Wisconsin, Illinois and South Dakota. Their concern is that the windmill blades could confuse a radar or obscure its view of aircraft.

Congress passed a law in January requiring the Defense Department to study whether windmills interfere with radar. The military opposes any windmill project in the path of long-range air defense radars until that study is completed.

Laurie Jodziewicz, a spokeswoman for the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA), says up to 15 projects are on hold after the FAA notified the industry group this year that they would create a "presumed hazard."

That designation makes it difficult to obtain financing and insurance for the projects, she says.

"It's very uncertain and very unclear why these things are happening now when it never happened before," Jodziewicz says.

"It's just another example of the situation where in the United States the renewable energy industry is always swimming upstream," says Michael Vickerman, executive director of RENEW Wisconsin, an advocacy group. "There are all these unforeseen obstacles that come along and slow things down."

The FAA and the military say they are not trying to halt construction of windmill projects but must ensure that the generator farms don't compromise aviation safety or national defense.

The main impetus for putting the projects on hold has come from the military. FAA radars can easily distinguish aircraft from obstructions such as windmills, but defense radars designed to spot airborne intruders are more sensitive to interference.

"Until the potential effects can be quantified and possible mitigation techniques developed, it is prudent to temporarily postpone wind turbine construction in areas where the ability of these long-range radars that protect our country might be compromised," Pentagon spokeswoman Eileen Lainez says.

Wind power generates slightly less than 1% of electricity in this country, but its share is growing rapidly, the AWEA says. Last year, wind was the nation's second-largest source of new power generation, after natural gas.

Lainez and FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown say their agencies are working with wind farm developers to smooth the application process. Brown cites the approval May 25 of a large project in Bloomington, Ill., that had been blocked.

Brown says the FAA has struggled to keep up with the influx of wind farm applicants. The aviation agency, which must rule on each windmill, received 4,343 applications last year, more than double the 1,982 it reviewed in 2004, Brown says. The agency expects as many as 10,000 this year.

The latest wind turbines stand several hundred feet high. Individual blades are more than 100 feet long. In some cases, the windmills could appear to be aircraft on radar screens or could create images that make it harder to spot planes.

Methods to minimize interference are available. Moving a proposed windmill, using computers to create smarter radars that ignore windmills, and using "stealth" technology to make windmills invisible to radar could solve the problem, Vickerman says.

The controversy over windmills in the upper Midwest follows a fight over a huge proposed project off Cape Cod in Massachusetts. Worried about possible radar problems at that project, Sen. John Warner, R- Va., inserted language into this year's Defense Authorization Act that required the study.

Warner didn't intend to block projects before the study was completed, says John Ullyot, a spokesman for the senator.


From: Rethinking Schools Online ..........................[This story printer-friendly]
June 1, 2006


Students get a glimpse into the corporate-controlled food system by looking at the politics of food

[Rachel's introduction: After several days of discussion, the 11th- grade global studies class decided to follow the "precautionary principle," which guides policy in many European nations, and institute a worldwide moratorium on genetically modified (GM) foods until they could be proven safe, and to require labeling of any GM foods that were approved for consumption. Furthermore, the summit voted to take away the right of any person or corporation to patent food.]

By Tim Swinehart

"Got milk? Want strong bones? Drink milk. Want healthy teeth? Drink milk. Want big muscles? Drink milk."

"The glass of milk looks nice and cold and refreshing. If I had a warm, homemade chocolate chip cookie, it would make my day. They go perfect together."

Ari and Colin could have been writing radio spots for the Oregon Dairyman's Association, but instead they were writing about the glass of milk I had set out moments earlier in the middle of the classroom. My instructions to the students were simple: "Describe the glass of milk sitting before you. What does it make you think of? Does it bring back memories? Do you have any questions about the milk? An ode to milk?"

From the front row, Carl said, "Mmmmm... I'm thirsty. Can I drink it?"

"Why don't you wait until the end of the period and then I'll check back with you on that, Carl," I responded.

We had spent the last couple weeks discussing the politics of food in my untracked 11th grade global studies classes. And while students -- mostly working class and European American -- were beginning to show signs of an increased awareness about the implications of their own food choices, I wanted to find an issue that they would be sure to relate to on a personal level. One of my goals in designing a unit about food was to give students the opportunity to make some intimate connections between the social and cultural politics of globalization and the choices we make as individual consumers and as a society as a whole. A central organizing theme of the unit was choice, which we examined from multiple perspectives: How much choice do you have about the food that you eat? Do these choices matter? Does knowledge about the source/history of our food affect our ability to make true choices about our food? How does corporate control of the global food supply affect our choices and the choices of people around the world?

I wanted to encourage my students to continue asking critical questions about the social and environmental issues surrounding food, even outside the confines of the classroom. I wanted to develop a lesson that would stick with them when they grabbed their afternoon snack or sat down for their next meal, something they might even feel compelled to tell their friends or family about.

Milk turned out to have the sort of appeal I was looking for. For almost all my students, milk embodies a sort of wholesome, pure "goodness," an image propped up by millions of dollars of advertising targeted especially toward children. My students had been ingrained with the message that "milk does a body good" for most of their lives and had been persuaded by parents, teachers, celebrities, and cafeteria workers to include milk as a healthy part of their day. But I believe that my students, along with the vast majority of the American public, hasn't been getting the whole story about milk. I wanted to introduce them to the idea that corporate interests -- oftentimes at odds with their own personal health -- hid behind the image of purity and health.

Growth Hormones and Milk

I wanted to help my students reexamine the images of purity and health that milk evoked by presenting them with some unsettling information about the Monsanto corporation's artificial growth hormone, rBGH. Recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH -- also known as Bovine Somatrotropin, bST, or rBST) is a genetically engineered version of the growth hormone naturally produced by cows, and was approved by the federal Food and Drug Administra-tion (FDA) in 1993 for the purpose of increasing a cow's milk production by an estimated 5 to 15 percent. Monsanto markets rBGH, under the trade name Posilac, as a way "for dairy farmers to produce more milk with fewer cows, thereby providing dairy farmers with additional economic security" (see www.monsantodairy.com). But with an increased risk of health problems for cows stressed from producing milk at unnaturally enhanced levels -- including more udder infections and reproductive problems -- critics argue that the only true economic security resulting from the sale of Posilac (rBGH) is the $300-500 million a year that Monsanto makes from the product.

The human health risks posed by rBGH-treated milk have been an issue of intense controversy since rBGH was introduced more than a decade ago. Monsanto and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) say that milk and meat from cows supplemented with bST are safe. On the other hand, a number of peer-reviewed studies, most notably those of University of Illinois School of Public Health Professor Samuel Epstein, MD, have shown that rBGH-treated milk contains higher than normal levels of Insulin-Like Growth Factor 1 (IGF-1). Although IGF-1 is a naturally occurring hormone-protein in cows and humans, when increased above normal levels it has been linked to an increased risk of breast, prostate, and colon cancers. Monsanto itself, in 1993, admitted that rBGH milk often contains higher levels of IGF-1. The uncertainty surrounding these health risks has led citizens and governments in Canada, all 25 countries of the European Union, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan to ban rBGH.

The continued use of rBGH in the United States points to the political influence of large corporations on the FDA's regulatory process. When, in 1994, concerned dairy retailers responded to the introduction of rBGH with labels indicating untreated milk as "rBGH free," the FDA argued that there was no "significant" difference between rBGH-treated milk and ordinary milk and warned retailers that such labels were illegal. The FDA has since changed its position and now allows producers to label rBGH-free milk. Paul Kingsnorth, writing in The Ecologist magazine, offers one explanation for the FDA's protection of rBGH: "The FDA official responsible for developing this labeling policy was one Michael R. Taylor. Before moving to the FDA, he was a partner in the law firm that represented Monsanto as it applied for FDA approval for Posilac. He has since moved back to work for Monsanto." Not an isolated incident, this example illustrates what critics often refer to as the "revolving door" between U.S. biotechnology corporations and the government agencies responsible for regulating biotech products and the safety of the nation's food.

The story of rBGH in the United States encapsulates many of the worst elements of today's corporate-controlled, industrial food system. Despite the illusion of choice created by the thousands of items available at the supermarket, consumers have little knowledge about where food comes from and how it is produced. By uncovering the story behind rBGH, I hoped students would begin asking questions about the ways corporate consolidation and control of the world's food supply has drastically limited the real choices and knowledge we have as food consumers.

To familiarize ourselves with Mon-santo's point of view, we spent a day in the computer lab exploring the corporation's website (www.monsanto.com). I asked students to look for arguments made in favor of biotechnology and genetically modified foods: Why does Monsanto argue that these technologies are important? What benefits do they offer to humans and the environment? Some students were impressed with a genetically engineered soybean designed to reduce trans fats in processed food, others mentioned drought-resistant crops that require less water.

Drew, however, was skeptical of the language Monsanto used to describe its research and products. "Why don't they ever use the terms 'genetically modified' or 'genetically engineered' and always use 'biotechnology product' instead? I find it ironic that Monsanto's 'pledge' is to uphold integrity in all that they do, even though genetically modified foods threaten the integrity of people and the environment."

The Corporation

Carl's request to drink the milk we had used as a writing prompt made a nice segue into showing students a short clip about rBGH from the documentary film The Corporation (from 29:15 to 32:30 on the DVD). As we viewed the clip, which includes powerful images of cows with swollen udders and compelling testimony from Dr. Samuel Epstein that links rBGH to cancer, students reacted. "Is that a real cow?" "Gross!" "Is that in our milk?" and "That's messed up, dude!" came from various corners of the room. But while sick cows and potential cancers risks are important, I was hoping to impress upon students how the risks of rBGH have been ignored and hidden from public knowledge by Monsanto and by those who license its use at the FDA.

I showed the clip from The Corporation as a pre-reading strategy for Paul Kingsnorth's article "Bovine Growth Hormones." The article is technical and can be a difficult read for some students, so I hoped to encourage their interest and give students a purpose for reading before I passed it out. I asked students to list questions or concerns as I paused the DVD. I was encouraged by their curiosity: "Do hormones get into the milk and how do they affect us?" "Is there pus in our milk?" "Is milk truly healthy for us?" "Why is rBGH necessary, if we already have too much milk?" "If they knew that the drug made cows sick, why do they still use it?" "What can we do about it?"

Then I passed out highlighters and told students to choose five questions from our list and to read "Bovine Growth Hormones" with those five questions in mind, highlighting as they come across important information. The article is quite comprehensive, and students were able to find answers to the majority of their questions, including everyone's favorite: "Is there pus in our milk?" Truth be told, all milk, including organic milk, has small amounts of somatic cells or "pus" in it, but the FDA has strict quality standards for the somatic cell count (SCC) above which milk may not be sold to consumers. What students learn from the article -- and what Monsanto's warning label accompanying all Posilac reads -- is that cows treated with rBGH are more likely to produce milk with increased SCCs due to the heightened risk for udder infections.

With the information from the website, film, and article to draw from, I wanted to give students another chance to respond to the glass of milk still sitting at the center of the room. I asked them each to draw a line under their initial descriptions and to write a second response: "Do you feel any differently about the glass of milk?"

Ari had initially extolled the many health virtues of milk but now seemed equally concerned about possible health risks: "Apparently, I get calcium, pus, and an increased risk of uterine, breast, and various kinds of cancers. Now, when I look at that glass half full of milk, I see cancer in a glass with a thin layer of pus as a topping. Now I don't think I can look at milk in the same way."

Ari's comment brings up a legitimate concern that by teaching students about rBGH, I am scaring them away from milk and toward less attractive alternatives, including soda. Such risks were a constant source of concern while teaching students about the myriad problems associated with industrially produced foods. After learning about the health and environmental risks of pesticides, herbicides, hormones, and genetically modified food, I had more than one student ask in exasperation: "But Mr. Swinehart, what can I eat?"

We are fortunate in Portland, Ore., to have a vibrant local food system that makes healthy, safe, and affordable food readily available. Several Portland-area dairies, including Sunshine, Alpenrose, and the nation's second largest producer of natural chunk cheese, Tillamook, have all committed to producing only rBGH-free milk products. Because these are not organic dairies, their rBGH-free milk tends to be less expensive and a more reasonable alternative for students than certified "organic" milk. Dairies in many other parts of the country have made similar pledges (see www.themeatrix.com/getinvolved/statepdfs/rbgh_list.html for an interactive map to find rBGH-free products in your area). Being able to recommend these local dairies not only presented students with a viable alternative to giving up milk completely, but also gave them a chance to apply their knowledge of controversial rBGH labeling during the next trip to the grocery store.

Compared to Ari, Eron wasn't too worried about rBGH's health risks, but did express a willingness to rethink his decisions as a consumer: "I still love milk and will drink it, but maybe I will make a change and buy organic milk instead so that I don't get all of the health risks. It seems this might benefit me the most and I will be happy about the choices I made." Of course, many students will choose to continue drinking milk regardless of where it comes from or what it has in it, but their knowledge of rBGH and the corporate politics behind unlabeled milk cartons, makes this a considerably more informed choice than most U.S. consumers have.

Eron's comment also raises one of my primary concerns in trying to teach students about the global politics of food. I was confident going into the unit that students would react strongly to issues surrounding the health of animals and their own personal health, but my goals for the unit were larger than this. While I was encouraged to see Eron thinking about the effects of rBGH on his own personal health, I also wanted students to make broader connections to ways the corporate control of the food system takes knowledge and power out of the hands of small food producers and consumers around the world. Do some countries and corporations benefit more from a global industrial food system than others? Do the environmental costs of this same food system pose a substantially greater risk for the world's poor, who still depend on a direct connection to the earth for their means of sustenance?

Patents on Life?

Since students' comments during the milk lesson seemed to focus on personal choices, I realized that we needed to broaden our focus from the politics of health surrounding rBGH to include an exploration of how a global food system, increasingly controlled by a few multinational agribusiness corporations, is affecting lives and cultures around the world. I wanted students to look at how corporations are changing the nature of food. Through the science of genetic engineering, biotechnology companies are experimenting with the biological foundations of what is arguably the world's most important life form: the seed. Biotech companies tend to downplay the revolutionary nature of this new science by suggesting that humans have influenced plant genetics, through selective breeding and hybridization, since the dawn of agriculture.

But because genetic engineering allows for the DNA of one organism, including animal and virus DNA, to be placed in a completely unrelated plant species, it crosses natural barriers that were never breached by traditional plant breeding. Without adequate testing or knowledge of long-term consequences, genetically modified (GM) crops are now grown around the world, posing what many argue is a serious threat to global food security. Through the natural and highly uncontrollable process of cross-pollination, GM crops have the potential to contaminate the genetic code of the traditional crops that have provided people with food for thousands of years.

It is not, however, just the seed itself that is changed through the process of genetic engineering, but the very idea of the seed is transformed as well. By altering the DNA of traditional seeds, biotech companies are able to claim the new seed as an "invention" and secure their right to ownership through the legal system of patents. Global production of biotech crops and the number of corporate-owned patents on seed have increased dramatically over the last two decades. Monsanto alone owns more than 11,000 seed patents.

To help students grapple with the international politics of seed patenting and GM foods, I designed a role play that would encourage them to confront the often unequal effects of the global food system and the global economy in which it operates. I set up the role play as a special meeting of the World Trade Organization (WTO), the primary governing body for international trade law. I asked students to debate how GM foods should be regulated internationally by taking on the following roles: farmers from India, U.S. Trade representatives, European Union commissioners, U.S. consumers, Greenpeace, and Monsanto. I asked them to reconsider WTO rules that set U.S. patent law as the de facto international standard for determining who has "ownership" of certain foods. In the introduction to the role play handout, I explained the following:

You are delegates to a special summit of the World Trade Organization (WTO). This meeting has been called to debate genetic engineering and patenting of foods. Due to worldwide resistance to genetically modified (GM) foods and the patenting of seeds, the WTO has been forced to reconsider its position on patents and the rights of multinational corporations to trade GM foods and seeds....

Your task for this summit is to determine to what extent GM foods deserve regulation, who should be responsible for any regulations that are necessary, and what these rules should look like.

This "special" meeting included voices that would never be heard at the actual, much-more-exclusive meetings of the WTO, but I wanted students to make their decisions in the role play based on a fuller representation of international perspectives.

To encourage students to begin thinking about the issues at stake in the role play, I asked them to write interior monologues -- statements where they imagined details about family, background, hopes, dreams, and fears, all from the perspective of their roles. I wanted to give students the opportunity to create personal connections to the characters they would embody during the role play, while also engaging with the critical issues surrounding GM foods and seed patenting.

Julia's monologue from the perspective of an Indian Farmer was particularly insightful:

I don't have the heart to tell my mother about TRIPS (Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights), because I don't think her body could handle the stress. TRIPS is an agreement of the World Trade Organization, an organization I could have cared less about until a few years ago. TRIPS requires member countries to protect patents on all kinds of life. This means that if someone was to put a patent on the type of rice that I am growing, I would be unable to grow and sell my crop without a payment to the patent holder. In addition, I wouldn't be able to save my seeds from one year to another -- something every generation in my family has done as far back as anyone can remember.... By saving our seed, we become acquainted with every plant on our field. I know that some of the seeds that I have stored away date back to my father's time. When I plant my saved seed, I plant not only rice, but my heritage.

Of course, not all my students displayed such a sophisticated understanding of something as abstract and complex as international patent law. Looking back on it, I may have taken on a little too much with the content of the role play. Many students struggled to understand exactly how the specific concerns of their characters should translate to recommendations at the WTO meeting. There were times when I felt ill-prepared to answer students' questions about the international debate surrounding genetically modified foods or the current status of WTO trade laws. I found myself struggling to stay a step ahead of them. But when it came time to discuss the issues at our meeting, I was encouraged by the students' ability to not only articulate the perspective of their own roles, but to ask the sort of questions of one another that showed a solid grasp of the various concerns represented around the room.

Will, speaking as the U.S. trade representative, said:

It's our belief that the companies that create GM foods are the most capable of testing them for safety. Companies like Monsanto spend millions of dollars each year on research, so they have an expertise that an international testing body wouldn't. And as far as saying that people may have allergic reactions to GM foods -- well, we just don't feel that this is a sufficient reason for banning them completely. I mean, look at how many people are allergic to peanuts, but we don't ban peanut butter, do we?

Amber chimed in as the Monsanto representative:

Yeah, if you think about it, it's in our interest to produce safe foods. I mean, we want people to keep eating them, right? And I'd like to remind you that the FDA fully approves all of the GMOs that are used in food in the United States.

Colin, representing Greenpeace, said:

But isn't it true that there are some GMOs that are not approved for use in food for humans? Mix-ups occur. How can we be sure what we are eating? If GM foods aren't labeled, how can consumers protect themselves?

And Julia, as an Indian farmer, said:

It's not just allergies that we're worried about. There are countries in Africa that have refused GM food from the United States because they are afraid that it will mix with native crops and contaminate them. Farmers from my country are worried about the same thing. You tell us that these things are safe, but you're the same people that made Agent Orange into a pesticide to use on food. How can we trust you?

Although we finished the role play with a long list of ideas for how it could be improved next time, the discussion showed me that my students were leaving with an understanding of the politics of food. They had gained knowledge of the issues of GM foods and patenting and how they can play out on a global scale, privileging a few powerful agribusiness corporations at the expense of the world's food consumers and small, local farmers.

After several days of discussion, the class decided to follow the "precautionary principle," which guides policy in many European nations, and institute a worldwide moratorium on GM foods until they could be proven safe, and to require labeling of any GM foods that were approved for consumption. Furthermore, the summit voted to take away the right of any person or corporation to patent food.

Of course, in the real world, the voices of traditional Indian farmers are not heard in the same conference room as those representing the world's largest corporations. Furthermore, the WTO is not likely to institute a ban on GMOs or radically reform patent laws any time in the near future. In this respect, the role play failed to result in any truly practical solutions to the problems facing farmers and consumers of food around the world. Part of me worries that this does a disservice to students. But after spending close to a month studying the crises of our global food system, I believe that I would be doing students a greater disservice if I didn't prompt them to consider what a more equitable and sustainable food economy could look like.

When starting the unit several weeks earlier, most students had been unable to see beyond how the choices we make about food affect anything other than personal health. The milk lesson was intended as a hook to reach students through their concerns about personal health with the hope of transforming this concern into a broader appreciation for our fundamental right to know and control where our food comes from and how it is produced. The current state of the industrial food economy, as Julia wrote in her final paper, "results in a public denied of their right to knowledge and proper choices about their food." Changing this economy will require the sort of resistance embodied in the role play by the farmers of India and the advocacy of groups like Greenpeace.

One of my greatest hopes in teaching students about food is to foster an understanding of the important role food plays in today's global economy and the even more important role it will play in creating more local, more democratic, and more sustainable economies of the future.

Tim Swinehart (tswineha@egreen.wednet.edu) was a student teacher at Franklin High School in Portland, Ore., when he taught this unit. He currently teaches at Evergreen High School in Vancouver, Wash. In 2002, Swinehart and his wife, Emily Lethenstrom, founded the Flagstaff Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) project in Arizona.

Additional Teaching Resources "Just a Cup of Coffee?" by Alan Thein Durning. A short piece available in Rethinking Globalization that encourages students to think about the long, complex path our food follows before getting to us and the environmental costs along the way.

The True Cost of Food. An entertaining short (15 min.) cartoon produced by the Sierra Club (available at www.truecostoffood.org) that presents the hidden social and environmental costs of factory-farmed, industrialy produced food.

Resources for Teaching About rBGH and Genetically Modified Food Physicians for Social Responsibility, Oregon chapter www.oregonpsr.org/programs/campaignSafeFood.html "Monsanto vs. the Milkman" www.motherjones.com/news/outfront/2004/01/12_401.html Monsanto's Posilac (rBST/rBGH) Homepage www.monsantodairy.com Center for Food Safety www.centerforfoodsafety.org Organic Consumers Association www.organicconsumers.org

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Rachel's Precaution Reporter offers news, views and practical examples of the Precautionary Principle, or Foresight Principle, in action. The Precautionary Principle is a modern way of making decisions, to minimize harm. Rachel's Precaution Reporter tries to answer such questions as, Why do we need the precautionary principle? Who is using precaution? Who is opposing precaution?

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